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Poetry as therapy

Sometimes a poem can help us understand the painful feelings we've been wrestling with. And no, you don't have to be a poetry geek to feel the healing effect.


It's 2012. I am a pretty mediocre, occasional poet, struggling to find my voice, on a course being led by some accomplished writers at Queen's University in Belfast. I've been sitting there for days with a notebook into which, in response to the writing exercises we've been set, I have periodically scribbled phrases, lines or stanzas of what looked quite like poetry but which have somehow never seemed to have quite the effect on others for which I'd been hoping. When the time comes to read our work to each other, my unvarnished, unfinished poems are received with smiles, polite positivity and even occasional admiration at a smart or clever phrase. And yet I can tell that the group, for all their kind words, haven't been touched by my efforts. I have no real idea what's going wrong. Until one day, one of the course leaders, an impressive, no-nonsense and, to my mind quite fierce Ulsterman, Ciaran Carson, says something to me that I have remembered ever since:


'Great poetry isn't about the poet explaining to you what they feel. It's about the poet explaining to you what you feel.'


Over a decade later, I'm a therapist. I spend time with clients who often arrive in emotional pain and confusion. Life has hurt them - perhaps recently, perhaps decades ago, and perhaps often. Emotions swirl. Sometimes these are visible and obvious. Sometimes it's all going on at a level somewhere inside, maybe not even immediately visible - causing havoc as feelings fight for expression but can't get it, maybe because it's long been too difficult or dangerous for my client to say how they really feel to the world (or even to themselves). It's quite common for some of us to not even know how we feel, as years of suppression do their work. For others, who have perhaps grown up in a family where feelings were never to be shared, or even seen as weak and shameful, the first task might be to identify them and name them. 'I don't know what's the matter with me', says someone, their distress clear. And sometimes, having rarely (or even never) having had the opportunity to bring difficult emotions into the light of day with someone who will hear and respect them, they might add, 'I feel so alone'.


When the process of therapy involves finding and voicing emotions - they can be painful, raw, and baffling to start with - the work we do together can mean needing to start by exploring what these feelings even are. We'll likely spend time bringing them into the room and looking at them. Even simply feeling them. It could take some time and it could be hard, but gradually, letting the feelings out can allow us to recognise and manage them. As we bring them into consciousness we can get to know them better. We can better understand the place from which they originate and explore whether their intensity is actually reflective of the events in our life right now, or if it comes from wounds we carry from long ago. And even if they do speak to our current experience, letting them into the room can be like carefully letting the steam out of a pressure cooker and watching it gradually dissipate until the steam fades into the air. Feelings brought in the room become shared. I am often moved by sitting with someone who is bringing difficult feelings - often with great courage. It is an experience that touches us both. To work with a therapist who you trust and with whom you really connect can be the start of a journey to move past that awful feeling of 'I am alone'. Which brings me back to poetry. The therapeutic effect of great poetry - it's ability to help people understand what they feel and to feel less alone in those feelings - is gaining recognition, and not just amongst those who hang out in the dusty corners of second hand bookshops with obscure volumes of verse in their hands. There's even a strand of the profession (bibliotherapy) that shares powerful poems and other writing, exploring reactions and the emotions prompted by it, sometimes inviting participants to write their own words in response. Meanwhile, poets themselves have started to actively offer poetry as a means of healing (The Poetry Pharmacy is a great example). Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese is often cited as an example. Mary Oliver had a prolific career over many decades in which her inspiration was often the natural world around her, from her Ohio childhood to her later years in New England. Wild Geese is a poem which has, in the twenty years since its appearance, become quietly known as one to share with those feeling lost or alone. If you are hurting as 2023 slips into 2024, I offer it to you here and send you love and strength. Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


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Jo is a UK based therapist - for more info or to enquire about her availability go to www.jjstherapy.com

Picture credit: Thomas Griesohn on Unsplash

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